The vast majority of my day is spent walking around an island covered in monkeys, carrying a large fluffy microphone and recording the many sounds all around me. I record bird song, I record the sound of waves crashing on a beach, and I record the sound of the wind and the rain in the palm trees of the island. But perhaps the most majestic sound I have yet to record is this one right here.
That is the sound of a monkey physically threatening me. But it is not just any monkey. Her name is 8E8. And she is my nemesis. The tale of Will and 8E8 goes back a long long long long time, eons really. All the way back to three or four weeks ago. It was then that we had our first altercation.
Now the first thing I should really say is that these monkeys are not violent towards humans, we do not risk our lives going out into the field everyday and that simple safety precautions and situational awareness will see you through pretty much everything the island can throw at you.
All right, disclaimer done lets continue.
8E8 is the exception to the rule that says habituated monkeys ignore humans. She is the adult female in Group F that researchers actively avoid. If someone is looking to test a cognition box experiment and they see 8E8 nearby, they quietly find an excuse to search another part of the group for test subjects. If someone is focal following a member of a closely associated group and their focal individual walk close by to 8E8 the researcher decides that they are in fact following their monkey too closely and that they should perhaps give them some more space. I however do not have such a luxury. Instead I stand like a big tall idiot in the middle of the group and hoping that some females get into a fight.
On just such a day three or four weeks ago I got my wish. A female did get into a fight. But it was with an unexpected victim Dun Dun Dun… It was me. There I was, standing like a lost documentary soundman when all of the sudden I felt a tug at my ankle. How odd I think to my self, and look down. Who should I see but the noseless face of 8E8. (I don’t know if I have mentioned this, but 8E8 is missing part of her nose and has the eyes of a demon. Just some useful side info for you) Anyway, 8E8 was grasping my pants in her tiny steel like grip. When I made eye contact with her she looked briefly into my soul, and then walked away.
I considered this rude and told her so. She ignored my remarks and sat by her sister to be groomed. Thinking our encounter over I returned to my regularly scheduled programming of waiting for a fight to break out. Not twenty minutes later I was standing in a different spot like a big tall idiot, when I heard a scream to my left. I spun quickly to bring my fuzzy microphone to bear on the screaming, but was disappointed to find that it was only an infant screaming and running toward me. Before I could sigh and turn back to the group I had been watching, I felt an impact just above my knee and then a second, harder impact, just below my right ribs. I turned to see 8E8 beating a hasty retreat. I looked down to see a muddy hand print on my bright blue field shirt. She had marked me. The game was afoot.
Since then I keep an eye on 8E8. As I move around the group I make sure I know where I last saw her. I don’t avoid her. That would just be showing her that I’m afraid. Which I am. But she can’t know that.
But after today the jig may be up. Once again I was caught between 8E8 and a distressed infant. Though this time, not her own. The infant screamed, I turned, and she struck. Plowing both iron hard palms into my left knee. I let out the yell you can here above and jumped back surging with adrenaline. I’d like to say that I didn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. And I can say that, because I didn’t cry. But nonetheless the scoreboard reads:
So people expressed an interest in the process of learning monkey faces. So I thought I would give you guys a crash course in IDing Rhesus Macaques.
The first place to start is with an understanding of the task. The goal of the exercise of monkey IDing is not simply to create an internal list of all individuals and their most obvious characteristics. Though it is certainly an excellent place to start. This is one of those rare cases where rational thought is in fact your adversary. It takes too long to go through the process of recognizing a trait, thinking of all individuals that have that trait, and then thinking of other characteristics, which could confirm or reject each of the individuals on your mental list. Instead you need to train your gut.
Training yourself to trust your instincts is not an easy thing to do. Ironically it feels unintuitive. During an ID test it is far more comfortable to try to run your mental check list and arrive at an answer, than it is too blurt the first thing that comes into your head. This is a pretty typical example of what can occur during an ID test:
Tester: “Who is that Monkey?”
Will’s Mind: Oh that monkey is 0A4! But wait; did 0A4 have that huge notch in her left ear? Doesn’t that look more like the ear notch of 8J8? Maybe that monkey is 8J8.
Will’s Mouth: It’s 8J8.
Tester: No, it’s 0A4.
Will’s Mind: Dammit!!!!!
It can seem paradoxical that a skill such as “Instantaneous Monkey Face Knowing” is necessary in a field of science. Especially since science is based on a framework of rational thought and the logical dissemination of information. At first it appears wrong that with a backdrop of rational thinking, that instincts should play such a starring role. But in fact gut reactions and a trust of rapid-fire human intuition plays a role all throughout the sciences. Consider chemists who can tell you the class of organic compound from smelling an aerosol, or a physicist who can tell you the elemental make up of a gas solely from the visible light spectrum it provides when charged, or a botanist who can glance at a wall of greenery and tell you the individual species contained within. At first glance each of these may look a carefully referenced determination, but in reality it is the result of hundreds of hours of study and practice of a given task. Until the focal task becomes second nature, it becomes instinctual.
That is the goal of monkey IDing. To be able to quickly glance at a group of monkeys and see each of them as distinct individuals whose names and relationships you simply know. That is the key to rapid and accurate data collection. And every other kind is worthless.
But since most of you are beginners, and cannot yet see the monkey faces for the monkey features we shall start with an exercise that I gave to my brother Stephen’s elementary school class. No disrespect meant. Below are mug shots of three of my females. We, and by that I mean I, am going to point out some of the characteristics that you could use to tell them apart and begin your IDing adventure. Feel free to pick out your own characteristics as well.
* Female rhesus macaque’s faces turn red in color when they reach the peak of fertility during their estrous cycle. As a result redness of face is a poor identifying characteristic as it is constantly changing.
I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Now imagine there are 74 more females whose faces you need to know. Could get tricky if you remembered them via a laundry list of memorized facial features.
This Monday represents the start of my third week working on Cayo Santigo. It will be my second full week working without the oversight of my advisor Dr. Lauren Brent. It would be appropriate, at this point, for any readers of this blog to wonder what precisely I mean when I say “working.”
What have I traveled all this way to do and what does the work look like on a daily basis?
The first question is difficult to explain simply so I’ll try to answer in pieces going forward. The second question is much simpler, so I’ll start there. My day-to-day work is a cross between a Police Station Photographer and a Scarer at Monster’s Incorporated.
Perhaps that is not a particularly illuminating explanation… I shall elaborate.
The first job of any teacher at the start of a new year is to learn their students; learn their names, their faces, and their social ties. This process is quite routine; merely requiring the brief application of concentration to attach twenty names to twenty faces, and then the slightly longer process of observing their interactions to see who is a friend of whom. Similarly, the beginning of my work requires that I learn my monkeys. Specifically, I must learn 77 adult females from the highest ranking of all the groups on the island, Group F. I must learn their names, their faces, their family ties, and their place within the female hierarchy of the group. Where my and the average teacher’s experiences differ, is in the names-to-faces part of out task. Where the teacher can apply his or her lifetime of human interactions to telling one student from the other, I cannot. So instead I go about the task of collecting what I charmingly term Monkey Mug Shots. Such as the ones below.
I use these guys to help me learn my girls’ faces and pair them with names. After two weeks of hard work I think I have about 60 of them learned. Meaning I can pick them out of the perpetual and ever changing police line up that is a monkey group on the move.
The other part of my work, and the portion that eats up far more of my time, is recording monkey screams. The experiment I will be running later this year involves playing an acoustic stimuli from a concealed speaker to unsuspecting monkeys and measuring the length of their responses to the stimuli. For this purpose I am collecting screams. Rhesus macaques produce several types of screams, between three and five depending on whose papers you read. But the ones I am interested in are those called Noisy Screams produced by, among others, adult females in conflicts. These screams are long (between 0.5 and 1.5 seconds), very loud (up to 82 decibels at 3m) and often come when the calling individual is in a physical conflict with a high-ranking female. As a result, I spend a lot of time following females around hoping they get into a conflict. This basically makes me the “Ambulance Chaser of Monkey Island.”
FOR WHEREVER A CRY RINGS OUT WILLIAM WILL BE THERE WITH HIS MICROPHONE IN HAND!!! *
*Provided the cry is a scream, and the scream is ringing out from an adult female in-group F.
Needless to say my mother is horrified and is likely putting together a care package for these furry little victims as you read.
But my mother needn’t be concerned. Well, not overly concerned in any case. Conflicts are a routine part of life in a rhesus macaque social group. As a species they are the most intolerant and agonistic of all Macaques. Fights can break out over access to food, access to mates, or access to infants. And social conflicts can range from simple avoidance, to face-to-face screaming matches with multiple individuals on either side. There are also occasional tussles where one female bites into another and holds her to the ground. But these are relatively rare, and mitigated by the prodigious rates of healing found in most old world monkeys.
In any case, when you think of me working, as I know you so often do, you can imagine me cursing and furiously snapping photos of distracted subjects, or chasing after screaming females trying to record their most terrified moments.
So I am now officially living in Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico.
I was hoping that my first post would contain a picture of hundreds of Rhesus macaques meandering around a tropical island, or perhaps of a juvenile monkey climbing a palm tree. But instead I have run into the first of what I’m sure will be many complications.
Allow me to explain. In order to work as a researcher on Cayo Santiago one must undergo a series of medical examinations and provide doctor-signed documentation that you do not possess any of the many human maladies that might afflict the island’s Rhesus macaques. Keep in mind, that rhesus is one of three species of macaques which together make up 79% of the 64,000 Non-Human Primates (NHP) used in medical testing every year in the United States. They are used in such prodigious numbers precisely because their physiology is so similar to humans. Additionally, because of the colonies population density, think 1400 monkeys on 35 acres of territory, any illness would spread rapidly from one individual to another, potentially threatening the whole population. Thus adhering to these medical requirements is extremely important.
Like a diligent researcher I underwent all theses tests, e.g., Measles titre, hepatitis, shigella, and other fecal parasites, back in October when I was living in Seattle. I got the appropriate signatures on the appropriate papers, and needled my doctors for exhaustive documentation for all my test results, and then submitted these to the appropriate authorities at the Caribbean Primate Research Center (CPRC). So when I arrived in Punta Santiago last Sunday I figured those forms a problem of the past and that I would waltz onto Cayo Monday to begin my work. BUT I had forgotten one very important thing…Island Time.
Some of you may be familiar with the concept of Island Time. Though perhaps you know it by some of its other names; African Time, Caribbean time, or the more discriminatory Colored People Time. No matter the name the idea is the same. Island Time is the perceived cultural tendency that people living in some African or Caribbean countries have a more relaxed attitude towards time. It can be described negatively as a cultural laziness or tardiness. I think it is more likely a reflection of the fluid and less rigorously scheduled lifestyle found in these countries. A lifestyle that is not dissimilar to other non-western cultures, but contrasts so starkly with the wall-to-wall scheduling practices of US/Western life.
Well it this self same island time, combined with a doctor that only practices Tuesdays and Fridays, which has left me looking longing at Cayo Santiago waiting for my medical clearance to be stamped. It would be easy to get frustrated and demand that things move faster, simple to get in peoples faces and complain about the delay. But I think in the end that would only serve to boost my anxiety, and would achieve nothing in the way of progress. So instead I am trialling my equipment, building a description file of my relevant monkeys, and deepening my understanding of the literature. But most of all, I’m adjusting to Island Time.
Hopefully in the coming week I will post pictures of myself on the island surrounded by monkeys. Until then I’ll be here.
All right! So let’s play catch up. It has been more than a year ago since I last posted to this blog. So if we are to continue playing “Where in the World is Will,” then we have a lot of material to cover and I will attempt to do it as painlessly, as pithily, and as pertinently as possible.
TLDR: I am going to be working on monkeys in Puerto Rico starting January 15th.
Let me start by saying that my South African adventure wound to a close beautifully, and that I am exceedingly grateful to all the people who contributed to my experience there. There are many lessons that I learned in that house in the midst of monkey paradise that I will carry with me until I receive blunt force trauma to the skull or pass on to the other side, or both.
I returned to the U.S. in April of 2016, hung around in lovely Deep River, Connecticut seeing family and friends before acquiring a wildlife biology position stateside. I was number six on a list for five positions working with the endangered bat species Myotis Sodalis, know more commonly as the Indiana Bat. Luckily for me, one of the five above me on the list took another job. So I got a very exciting phone call, and ran off to Indiana to chase bats with a butterfly net!
That last bit about the butterfly net is not true, and shame on all of you who thought for a moment that it was.
I know that I should be flying through this bit (see what I did there) to get to the here and now. But I think more people should understand just what goes into bat research. If you’re thinking “Man I can’t be bothered to learn anything today” you can just keep scrolling and I will leave a marker lower down the page for you to join the rest of us. But for those of you for whom knowledge is akin to crack, let’s get our fix together!
The project I worked on between June and late August 2016 was run by Indiana State University and funded by the Indianapolis International Airport. “Why is it important to know who funded the project?” you might ask. Well, because blue-sky research rarely happens without some form of goal driven financier and I think that the Indianapolis International Airport did a great thing by funding this and other research, and they deserve some props.
In any case, back in 1992 the airport wanted to expand its runways, so it bought a bunch of nearby wetlands for development. But before they bulldozed the trees and filled in the swamps, the airport authorities did a number of species presence tests. Low and behold they found summer maternity colonies of Indiana Bats. Since then the airport has been funding research into habitat usage by the Indiana Bats. This past year 2016 was actually the last year of the project, which I suspect is why they hired me. You know, save the best for last…
“That’s very interesting and all Will,” you are saying, “ but how exactly do you study bats. Surely they are hard to catch and monitor.” And I would reply, “YOU HAVE NO FREAKING IDEA…”
So here is how you catch bats. You go out and find yourself a nice creek or path leading to an open wetland area. Somewhere where you have lots of flying insects and where the vegetation makes natural channels that a bat might choose to fly down, like they are X-Wing pilots bent on shooting proton torpedoes into a 2 meter exhaust vent. Then, set up two or three, two story tall nets across the entire corridor. These are called Mist Nets and they look like really tall volley ball nets with extra fine mesh running from top to bottom. Once you have a few of these nets strung up, go back to where you dropped all of your equipment and set up camp. Camp consists of a ring of camp chairs, a table covered in measuring and tagging equipment, and I kid you not, a clothes line for hanging up bagged bats while you work up their captive brethren.
One thing I should mention. Possibly the most critical aspect of bat research is something called White Nose Syndrome. It is a fungus born illness that is wiping out bats across North American, moving west from New England. For more information on White Nose see this link https://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/white-nose_syndrome/. The reason this is relevant to us is that fungal spores, which are passed on by contact with an infected bat, transmit the illness. Since we as researchers are in contact with multiple bats, our equipment and us can act as a vector for this bat killing fungus. To avoid becoming accomplices to the genocide of our study species, we change out latex gloves between bats, wipe down everything with disinfecting wipes, and boil all our nets, gloves, and coveralls in bleach between nights.
Now back to the action, or rather inaction. Because once you are suited up, have a base camp, and your nets are up, you get to sit in your circle of chairs for 5 hours getting up every 10 minutes to wade, sometimes waist deep, through a creek to check your nets to see if any bats have flown into them. And just to add some perspective. There were nights when we only caught one bat. That’s right, 1 hour of set up, 5 hours of waiting, and 1 hour of take down for a single bat. And not even a bat of the desired study species. Think about that next time you are winging about the inefficiency of your job. That said, there are nights where you catch thirty bats and can’t work them up faster than they are flying into the nets. So it varies.
Once the bats are in the net though, the fun can start. Have you ever had to disentangle burrs from your hair, or get the tangles out of a fishing net? Now imaging doing that, except the tangle/burr is alive, terrified, and trying with all it’s tiny might to bite itself free of your hands. That is roughly what getting a bat out of a mist net is like. It’s tedious, frustrating, bitey, and oh so satisfying. Once the bats are out of the net we identify and log the species, sex, age, mass, and forearm size of the bat. There are 13 different species of bat that have been found in Indiana, ranging from the more common Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) to the more rare Tri-Colored Bat (Pipistrellus subflavus). For more information on the bats of Indiana check out https://secure.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/8450.htm. Depending on the species and the data needs of different graduate students, we would either collect fur clipped from their backs or feces samples conveniently provided by the induced fear of being handled by a creature hundreds of time their size. For the target of the study, the Indiana Bat, we had an extra special protocol to follow. We would glue a radio transmitter to the bat’s furry little back and track their nightly movements until they groomed the transmitter free.
The bat tracking techniques are a whole other adventure. But said simply we would set up three to five mobile receiver stations (which is a fancy way of saying a research assistant with a car and an antenna). Then every 5 minutes, over the course of a night we would collect compass bearings on the bats transmitter. Our bearings were later fed into a program that triangulated the location of the bat every 5 minutes, creating a map of the bats movements over the course of the night. These maps can then be used to assess habitat usage, and when combined with analysis of guano or fur, they can tell us about the food sources and toxicology of the various habitat spaces. Neat stuff right!
Any way that’s what I did for three months, ending in late August.
Anti Learning people please rejoin us!
The end of the summer meant the end of my employment, and consequently the end of my cash flow. Fortuitously I have developed an understanding of the linear progression of time and so was prepared with my next challenge. Well sort of… At the conclusion of my batty summer (sorry, it won’t happen again) I traveled three long hours to see my dear cousin James in Chicago. While I was there I figured I might as well pop in on a small primate shindig that coincidently coincided with the days I was in Chicago. So I took the ticket I had bought weeks before, grabbed the wardrobe my saintly mother had mailed out to me, and attended the joint conference of the International Primatology Society and the American Society of Primatologists. Which was ostensibly the greatest collection of primatologists in history. Seven days of talks about every facet of modern primatology, from the impact of various types of primate pictures in social media, to deep questions of great ape cognitive capacity.
If you are unfamiliar with scientific conferences then imagine this: You are an amateur musician interested in breaking into the music scene and you go to a week long event where all of the living musicians you have ever looked up to, or aspired to be like, are talking about nothing but music. Long talks about instrumentation, music form, and compositional dynamics combined with informal conversations between industry leaders and up-and-coming stars. Hundreds of people united by a single interest, engaging in full throated adulation of their driving passion. A nerd-fest on the scale of Comic-Con, all about primates. And yours truly standing in the middle of it. If you want to talk about life path affirming experiences. This is one of mine.
So in the midst of my weeklong science-gasm I had arranged to meet a woman by the name of Lauren Brent. Whoops! That’s Dr. Lauren Brent! I had contacted her while I was in Indiana about working for her on a research project she was looking to run investigating the origins of sociality in primates. Upon meeting in person she deemed me suitable and we discussed the project in more detail. Eventually determining that I would join her at a research station in Puerto Rico in January to begin the project.
So now I had a plan… for January… and it’s August. Shit!
So I did what anyone would do in my position. I drove westward, stopping to hike a 14,143 ft mountain with a friend in Colorado, to backpack the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and to slept on a logging road in Montana. All on the way to see my buddy Zack in Seattle. Once there I got a service industry job, vicariously lived the life of a bartender for 3 months, and then drove back cross country. You know… the obvious thing to do.
That brings us to Christmas.
The holidays happened.
And that brings us to now.
And so, on January 14th I fly down to Puerto Rico to start work on a research project that will serve as the data collection for my Master’s by Research, which I will undertake at the University of Exeter in the UK, starting in November 2017.
That last line is the reason for my reboot of this blog. Since it is unlikely that I will be able to see friends and family much in the next two years, and since it’s people seem to be interested in what I do, this blog will serve to keep you up to date on my whereabouts as we all play “Where in the World is Will.”
There is an interesting phenomenon in human behavior that I believe has been exacerbated in recent years. Humans don’t look up. You see the extreme of this in horror & action films all the time. A character walks into a room and surveys it with a sweep of his gaze/pan of the camera. He/we see nothing and presumes the room is safe, but it’s not. And something on the ceiling jumps down and kills him horribly. In a more real world situation, place an object on a high shelf in a room and then ask someone to search for the object. Odds are they will scan every available surface and nook of the room before ever adjusting their field of vision upward. It’s a human nature thing. Maybe it has something to do with our primate ancestor’s general lack of aerial predators, maybe it’s hazardous to walk while staring heavenward, maybe our cell phones and computer screens are always located downward. I don’t know for sure but I do know that I have been looking up lately and I’ve found the experience enlightening. I have also developed a new fondness for clouds.
I was talking to a friend here about clouds and she said something that intrigued me. She said that when she used to look at paintings or drawings of clouds she used to always think they looked too vivid, too fanciful and too beautiful to be real. She used to think that artists were making up the shapes and that clouds like that didn’t occur in the world we live in. But since being here she has realized that the artists just handpicked the best clouds for their art; the rarest ones only ever seen by people who spend a lot of time looking up.
I think people should look up more. I think the hustle and bustle slows down when you watch the clouds move; when you watch phenomena occur on a time scale apart from your own. I think it’s hard to look up into the sky and think the world revolves around you, I think watching the sky helps us remember what Copernicus discovered so many centuries ago; the earth is not the center of the universe. There are bigger things happening all the time if you care to stop and watch.
The rains have come, the river has begun to flow, and the insects are here. The last of these is by far the most significant. Allow me to describe to you what we call Termite Day.
Termite Day is any day after a big storm. The rainwater from the night before soaks into the ground, turning what was dry cracked clay into a reserve-wide slip and slide of red mud. The now saturated ground forces all of the creepy crawlies that lurk beneath up to the surface. We’re talking veritable armies of ants, legions of milli- and centipedes, and millions upon millions of termites (there are also dung beetles of every description, scorpions of varying size, and a whole bunch of other chitin covered creatures making their way around, but for brevity’s sake let’s leave it at that). What we are interested in are the termites, for it is on these days, after it rains, that all the little ground dwelling bugs take to the sky in search of that special someone. On these days they unfurl their specially developed wings and fly out the mouths of their mounds, which are scattered every few meters all throughout the reserve. The droves of little winged bodies make the bush feel like a fairy grove, full of flighty creatures seeking to impart the magic of new life. That is, until they fly directly into your face… for hours on end.
The biological explanation behind their behavior is a lot like the beginning of the schoolyard game of sharks and minnows. In the game there is a herd of students (minnows) who all wish to get safely from one side of the blacktop or gymnasium to the other, without being tagged (eaten) by the single student standing between them and safety (the shark). By rushing out all at once the minnows overwhelm the shark and more of them get to the other side than if they were to go a few at a time.
Similarly the termites overwhelm the predators with sheer numbers, increasing the chances of some individuals successfully mating and starting their own colony. This tactic is called “predator satiation” and is commonly found in insects. The strategy is most classically demonstrated by the 17-year and 13-year periodical cicadas, who live the first stage of their life cycle underground until every member of the population emerges from the ground en mass once every 13 or 17 years, depending on species. As the name suggests, a central aim of this strategy is to send out far more individuals than could possibly be consumed by their predators. Termites just keep flowing out of the ground until all of their predators have eaten their fill and leave the bugs to reproduce in peace.
Since we at the station study vervet monkeys and not termites, our role in the days festivities comes from watching the predators, our monkeys, become satiated. Namely, watching dozens of monkeys, some with babies clinging to their bellies, run and jump in the air to catch as many would-be-fairies and possible.
The mating dance of termites in an interesting affair that many people study in much detail, but there is one aspect that I would like to note for its beauty: their wings. Termites grow wings for the express purpose of getting far from their homes and attracting a mate. Much like a prom dress, they are energetically expensive and serve a single purpose, and once the termite pairs have found one another they ditch the wings and do their thing. This leaves millions upon millions of discarded wings littering the ground. For a day or two after each Termite Day these masterless wings drifting through the air on whatever breeze finds them, like day old confetti, ending up in clumps on the ground or sequestered in shallow hollows, protected from the wind. They are pretty in their own way, a reminder of all the work that went into a day of feasting and fornicating.